The LeBron-Curry-Durant torch of the NBA has been passed to a new generation

In Game 1 of the Suns-Timberwolves series, Minnesota's Anthony Edwards collared Kevin Durant on the switch, easily maneuvered himself to open a 3-pointer, then splashed it down and barked it around for Durant. All the way to the other end of the court.

And in three more games, it happened over and over again, until Durant's team was unceremoniously eliminated from the playoffs on Sunday. Fittingly, the finale culminated in a Durant trade against Edwards' series clincher.

Those moments were part of a larger theme. Minnesota's playoff game occurred just 24 hours before the Denver Nuggets unceremoniously expelled LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers from the postseason. At least they made it this far; Stephen Curry's Golden State Warriors were unable to reach the playoffs, as they were torpedoed by the Sacramento Kings in the Play-In Championship.

Thus, the sun is about to set over two decades of dominance over this trinity. Durant is 35, Curry is 36, and James is 39. At least one of these three has participated in the second round of the playoffs each year. Since 2005; In 2017 and 2018, all three reached the NBA Finals. This season, they have combined for just one playoff win.

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You can turn the triangle into a square by adding Kawhi Leonard; The two-time Finals MVP turns 33 in June and is out again with knee issues. He has worked at full strength in exactly three of the Los Angeles Clippers' last 17 playoff games and has not finished a healthy season since the 2020 NBA bubble.

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With the exception of these four, we are witnessing a complete defeat for the generation that has carried the NBA for the past decade-plus. One of James, Curry, Durant, or Leonard was the MVP of nine of the 10 NBA champions from 2011 to 2020…and those four were so good that they also managed to represent the MVP of eight of the 10 teams. Who lost NBA Finals that decade. That means 20 conference champions, 17 of whom are facing off against one of those four. (Your exceptions are Dirk Nowitzki in 2011 and Jimmy Butler in 2020, while Leonard in 2013 wasn't quite as we saw in the following Finals.)

Now, they can't even scratch the second round, except maybe Leonard does it as a spotter. She wonders if any of the four will ever return as leading men; Things could get worse given their ages and the team's circumstances, as Curry and James face a second-tier situation with the Warriors and Lakers in a crowded Western Conference, and the expensive, flawed, asset-mined Suns make it unlikely that Durant will even contend to return. To Oklahoma City. (Wait, am I allowed to say that out loud?)

Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and forward LeBron James talk before the start of the NBA All-Star Game in February in Indianapolis. (Kyle Terada/USA Today)

Of course, we've been going through a little transition from that golden age for some time. Three other men have won MVP awards five times — Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid — and that streak should reach six years when Jokic is bestowed the honor for a third time in the coming weeks.

However, over the past half-decade, James, Curry, Leonard and Durant have always been that way there, always a big part of the conversation. Last year, three of them made it to the second round of the playoffs, and we weren't far behind in the LeBron vs. Durant West finals.

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Thus, this seems like a defining moment for the NBA, and perhaps for how it markets itself. Truthfully, that date has been pushed back beyond reasonable expectations by frequent last-gasp upsets, such as when James and Curry's teams won in the first round last season as the seventh and sixth seeds, respectively, and ensured at least one team would reach the conference finals. Or when the Lakers sail through the Charmin-soft slide and win their first championship of the season.

However, this postseason appears to be the real turning point. The league now belongs to Jokic, the defending champion and likely soon-to-be three-time MVP; Along with the Joker, there's a group of stars roughly a decade or so younger than that trio: NBA players Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Luka Doncic and Jayson Tatum, most notably, with Edwards, Tyrese Haliburton and Victor Wimpanyama all making their case to join them. On a pedestal. (It hurts me that I can't write “Ja Morant” here with confidence.)

Yes, Antetokounmpo and Embiid are there too, as are some other young drawing cards (Anthony Davis, Jalen Brunson, Devin Booker, and Donovan Mitchell, for example). However, unlike Jokic and Giannis, we seem to be skipping this generation straight to the next. Think about how many SGA vs. Luka Red River fights we might have over the next decade, for example, maybe starting a week from now.

It's a brave new world, where the best players in the league are not only new faces (and therefore less well-known), but most of them are in less-glamorous markets. Make a list of 15-20 players who you think will run the league in 2027; Now count the number of players who play for the seven teams in California, New York or Chicago. Depending on your thoughts on Bronson, the answer is either one or none.

This could change, of course. Once upon a time, James played in Cleveland, Leonard played in San Antonio, and Durant played in Oklahoma City. But most of the players I mentioned above are on good teams in great situations, and the more favorable contract extension rules mean few of them will join free agency before their 30th birthday. You can never rule out #thisleague moments, but in all likelihood, few of the next generation's stars will be moving on anytime soon.

This is ultimately a good thing for the long-term health of the NBA, especially with James and Curry so far executing gentle fadeaways while the kids hold the torch; It's still good enough to keep us entertained on a Tuesday night in January, if nothing else, and bring out some extra casual Christmas viewing.

But this spring's results leave us beyond reasonable doubt about what is happening; Edwards, Gilgeous-Alexander, Jokic and Doncic are likely to be the first men in the West semifinals, with each of their teams having won at least 50 regular-season games.

The confrontations between Edwards and Durant last week signaled a larger generational shift, and that this moment is about much more than just the Nuggets. Nearly two decades later, a much broader changing of the guard is underway.

(Top photo of Stephen Curry, LeBron James and Kevin Durant: Troy Wairinnen, Roy Chinnroy and Brad Rempel/USA Today)

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